|Gargoyles have invaded the surface. The shrines have been captured. The Avatar was nearly sacrificed on an altar. Lord British is spending his evenings reading stories to a mouse.|
Over the years, I've been charitable to Lord British. Not Richard Garriott, but the in-game character. Ever since I was a kid and I picked up Ultima IV, I saw him as a larger-than-life, honorable, almost Arthurian figure, ruling Britannia with a combination of strength and benevolence.
But now I'm thinking, screw him.
Let's really scrutinize the character. On the plus side, he initiated the Quest of the Avatar and according to the Ultima V manual, brought democracy to Britannia in the form of a "monarchic republic." Gotcha. Check, check.
Now let's look at the other side of the ledger. Note that in creating his little utopia, he doesn't provide any mechanism for electing some other sovereign. Not only is Britannia a dictatorship, it's an eternal dictatorship, as Lord British is effectively immortal. In Ultima I and II, he makes you buy hit points from him despite sending you on a quest to literally save the world. He sits there and does nothing while you kill Gwenno and slaughter his entire castle full of guards. He has no faith in the people of the land he's come to rule and constantly sends back to his home world for anyone capable of fighting more than a gremlin. In Ultima V, he appoints some nobody by the name of "Blackthorn" to be his regent, blunders into underworld with an inadequate party, gets his ass tossed into jail, and hinges his rescue on the Avatar following some obscure clues to his "sandalwood box." Here's a hint, Brittni: next time you head off to the underworld, why don't you take your Orb of Instantly Returning to the Surface with you?
In Ultima VI, he completely misunderstands the gargoyle threat and utterly spazzes at the end of the game (spoilers--sorry) when you do your job and solve the quest. By Ultima VII, he's essentially a doddering old fool, completely oblivious to what the Fellowship is doing, and--if I remember correctly--sleeping with one of his maids. He basically hides in his room throughout Ultima Underworld II. I don't really have any idea what he does in VIII or IX since I haven't played them, but I assume he just sits around twiddling his thumbs while the Avatar--again--does all the work to bail him out of a situation he probably created.
|Oh, you don't like being called "Mr. Nose," Mr. Nose? Does it bother you, Mr. Nose?|
Honestly, in you were in charge of a company making a game series in which your alter-ego appeared as a major NPC, wouldn't you try harder to make him more regal? More worthy of all the praise his toadying subjects heap upon him? The in-game character of Lord British couldn't be more damaging to the actual Lord British if he was programmed by people who hated him.
Yes, I'm bitter.
This is why.
|This woman is talking about her mother.|
The Avatar held it together during this conversation. After all, Terri, the mint-worker, didn't know any better. She wasn't there. She just assumed her mother met the Avatar at the party. The Avatar said, "No, no, I don't remember her. But she sure sounds great! Have a nice day, Terri. I'll be back with those nuggets!"
Then he kept it together as he strolled outside. After a long pause, he turned around and faced his companions. The polite veneer dropped from his face to reveal an expression of cold fury.
|"Say 'Ask Shamino about that' again. I dare you. I double dare you. Say 'Ask Shamino about that' one more goddamned time."|
Because to the best of my recollection, the moment--literally the moment--I recovered the Codex from the Stygian Abyss, Lord British unceremoniously booted my ass back to Earth without so much as a "thanks." Now I find out that the Britannians had a big shin-dig without me. Lord British probably took all the credit for the recovery of the Codex himself, then hit on Terri's mom. But he went to bed alone as always, because women don't really go for guys who spend their evenings reading children's books aloud to mice.
Did they have a party at the end of Ultima V, too? A big "Welcome Home, Lord British" fiesta? Were they drinking margarita shooters and dancing under the limbo stick while I was home discovering that all my possessions had been burgled?
The Avatar needed some alone time. He went to wander the forest and skip stones in a river while he wondered exactly what he was doing here. Have you ever stopped to think how badly it screws up his life to get repeatedly hauled into Britannia? You think it's easy to keep a job, let alone a career, when you disappear without warning for months at a time? Can you imagine what my family goes through? And it's not like any of the skills I pick up in Britannia are transferable to Earth. Yet every time that moongate appears, I stupidly walk through it. I face mortal peril on the other side, and when I've solved everyone's problems, do I get a sack of gold? A permanent seat on Lord British's inner council? A magic sword I could hawk for some serious do-re-mi at DragonCon? Do I even get to attend my own party? No. It's "don't let the moongate slice your ass on the way through" and pretty soon, I'm back in my house, losing an eighth with the lies I have to put on my c.v. to account for all the gaps in employment.
|If only that paid my mortgage, Lynn.|
If the game offered an "evil" option, I would take it, but it doesn't. So I have to rationalize why I'm continuing to help these ungrateful bastards. I suppose the best I can do is say that while Lord British might be a jerk, his people aren't. In fact, this is one of the few games in which you feel like a hero walking amidst the populace. Everyone recognizes me, either from a previous visit or because of some painting that I don't remember sitting for. They hail me, praise me, give me free stuff. It's not so bad. In fact, I think I'll stretch out this visit for as long as I can. I'm just not talking to Lord British anymore. If I need healing, I'll go to the oddly-redundant healer in Britain.
Okay, that's all long enough to sufficiently make up for the fact I haven't played more than 45 minutes since the first post. Let's get back to what little I can tell you about the game.
As I noted in the first post, I got a couple of clear directions on my quest while I was still in Lord British's throne room, but I decided to finish exploring the castle and Britain first. Between Ultima V and VI, the castle, Britain, and the three Brittanys merged into one large town (even Paws to the south is clearly part of the same metropolitan area). It was a decision that made sense, now that the game no longer requires a separate "entry" into castles and towns, although it does have the effect of making the game world seem a little smaller, as there's less wilderness area between the cities.
As usual, I've been keeping my relevant notes in Excel, including orb positions (more on that next time), NPCs, potion effects, and a "to do" list. I counted 27 NPCs in Britain (including the castle), which is far less than you'd imagine you'd find in a "real" city but about the same as you find in modern games like Skyrim. They also have about as much to say as in modern games, and once again I'm reminded that continuous improvement in all areas is not inevitable as the years pass.
It makes me wonder, whether we're talking about Britain or Whiterun, how you're supposed to view the extremely sparse populations. Are these named NPCs truly supposed to represent everyone who lives in the city, or are we supposed to pretend that there are hundreds of nameless commoners hovering invisibly in the background? By including lots of houses you couldn't enter and having random on-line villagers in the streets, the Infinity Engine games did a particularly good job making you feel like the cities were bigger than the couple of dozen people you could actually talk to. I suspect there are mods that do the same thing for the last couple Elder Scrolls titles.
As commenter RobertM pointed out, this game takes a strange but not unwelcome turn in its use of NPCs. It imbues them with personalities and quirks, and includes an awful lot of dialogue options that have absolutely no reference to the plot. Where an NPC in Ultima IV might say something like, "I MEDITATE ON HONOR!," his Ultima VI counterpart will give you a long story about how he used to be a solider but saw his friends die on the battlefield and can no longer enter combat with another person because he can't bear to watch his companions get hurt. Most of the time, none of this really leads to anything--no hints, no quests, no lore--but it still makes Britannia feel like more of a living place than the previous games. The thing is, I could imagine some players absolutely hating this.
The personalities in Britain alone could staff their own British sitcom. We have Finn, a homeless man who pretends to be Lord British in disguise. Nan, an instructor in the British conservatory and wife of Kenneth (the teacher of "Stones" in Ultima V), is a terrified of spiders and hallucinates them coming out of her lute.
|Meth is a hell of a drug.|
Maldric, a cook in the kitchens of the castle, used to be a boar hunter and hints that he longs for adventure again, but he gets flustered and cuts off conversation when I suggest he JOIN our party. Tholden von Bazillius, Lord British's chancellor, used to be an adventurer called "The Werecat of the Winecellar." Terri, the proprietor of the Royal Mint, took the position after the previous minter, her father, passed away. She shamelessly flirts with me, promising to show me "more than a few silly coins" the next time I visit.
They often have things to say about each other; Kenneth warns me not to ask Nan about SPIDERS, for instance, which of course I did immediately. Terri's best friend is Kytyn, the curator of the Royal Museum. Anya, a bartender at the Blue Boar Tavern, is the mother of a child named Ariana studying at the conservatory. She is also the wife of Matt, the tavern's cook, who is deaf and dumb. She asks if I can try to find a spell to restore his hearing, which I guess counts as a side quest.
More than a few of the NPCs are just silly. We already had a discussion thread on talking animals. Many of the names don't make any sense for NPCs from another world, and some of them have accents that are rather out-of-place in Britannia.
|Mamma mia, that Codex! She's like a spicy meat-a ball-a!"|
Your NPC party members, far from going mute the moment they join as they did in IV and V, occasionally interject in the dialogue and have their own dialogue trees. Notably, Iolo clarifies the pronunciation of his name ("Yo-low"), and Dupre establishes the wine-women-and-adventuring personality that he'll keep through the rest of the series.
|Do not get me started on grails.|
In addition to visiting the city and talking to the NPCs, I also explored a bit of the caverns beneath the castle. I don't know if these are supposed to be the same as the Hythloth dungeon from the previous games. Mostly, I found a bunch of rats and mice to kill, although I seem to remember if I keep going down, I eventually hit a series of caverns that go under the ocean to Buccaneer's Den. This means Britain's seas are unrealistically shallow.
|And yet the little streams inside the dungeons are deep enough that I need a portable skiff to cross.|
A bunch of miscellaneous comments and notes from my time in Britain:
- Taking anything--even a loaf of bread--from a business or house results in the nearest NPC shouting "Stop, Thief!" and every other NPC in the area attacking. Stealing items outside the view of NPCs results in a "Stealing!" message but no other consequences that I can tell. I can't remember if this game even bothers to track karma as the previous two did.
- Even though Iolo owns the shop, taking things from the bowyer's counts as "stealing!"
- The castle contains a crystal ball that if you enter some coordinates, it will show you what's happening there currently. I'm not sure if this has any plot-related reason later on.
- I've found a number of colored potions. They seem to do the same thing as in Ultima V: red cures poison, black turns you invisible, yellow heals, and so forth.
- My room in the castle contained a spell book and a sack of reagents. The book comes with a collection of starting spells, including "Help," which brings you back to Lord British's throne room. The game is a bit different than its two predecessors in that although you still need reagents to cast spells, they automatically deplete from your inventory. You don't have to pre-mix them.
- Chuckles--very annoying as always--has sent me on a bit of a treasure hunt. He first told me to check the chest in Nystul's room. There, I found a note telling me to check under a plant in Serpent's Hold. I don't remember what this is about, but I strongly suspect it's a wild goose chase. I'm not going to go to Serpent's Hold specifically for this little quest.
|I'm going to kill you.|
- Doors: locked wooden doors can be picked or knocked down. Some locked metal doors can be picked; others require a key. I guess if you take all the trouble to push a cannon around, they can deal with the metal doors, too.
|Using a cannon in this manner accomplishes nothing.|
- Secret doors are identified by noticing their barely-visible outlines in the walls. I forgot to take a screen shot before I opened all the ones I found in Britain. I'll try to get it next time.
- You can get drunk on bottles of alcohol. This causes you to move in a random direction every time you try to move. Curiously, if one character gets drunk, the entire party is drunk.
|Now I'm going to go tell Lord British what I really think of him!|
- Although I like the option to split the party, you have to be careful because the game won't let you re-enter "party" mode until all party members are relatively close to each other. If you're in a dungeon and have lost a sense of direction, this can be difficult.
|Well, hell. Where did I leave them?|
- A crazy guy in the sewers named Daros gave me a rubber duck. It goes "Squeak!" when I USE it. I have no idea what that's about.
- The game offers only one save position.
- You can't sleep in beds (at least, using no method that I could determine), including the one assigned to you in the castle. The only way to sleep is to wander outside the confines of the city and REST. This causes each character to consume a unit of food, but it doesn't look like it matters who, specifically, is carrying the food. There doesn't seem to be any consequence to not having food except not gaining any hit points back from the rest.
- The Royal Museum has some interesting artifacts: bones and an egg from a dragon named Freitag (a reference to The Caverns of Freitag from programmer Dr. Cat), the bones of an extremely early Britannian named "Zog"; a perpetual-motion machine; a constant discharge of electricity, a stone that continuously spews water, and a "monolith from Lord British's homeworld." I don't know what the latter thing is supposed to be. If it's something to do with Stonehenge, the ceiling in the museum must be a lot higher than it looks.
- Kytyn also says that the museum is expecting a Klein bottle.
- Also in the museum is a painting that turns out to be an English variant of Rene Magritte's La Trahison des Images. I always thought this was the dumbest theme ever explored in a famous work of art. "Ooh, it's not really a pipe; it's just an image of a pipe!" How extraordinarily meta. You just blew my tiny little brain there, Rene.
|Not only is this not a pipe, it's not even an image of a pipe! It's a textual description of an image of a pipe! I must lie down.|
- If an NPC is standing in your way, you can MOVE him or her to the position of your choice. This feels a bit rude, but the NPCs never complain.
- You can buy a horse and separate horseshoes from a blacksmith. As with the previous games, I can't see any potential use for horses, as the hassle of keeping track of them far outweighs the savings in travel time.
- I re-remembered my favorite part of Ultima VI: powder kegs! When you light them, you have a few seconds to get away before there's a devastating blast. You can blow up doors and monsters with them, arrange them strategically like dominoes to cause a chain of explosions, and use them to shape the combat terrain. Unfortunately, they're very heavy to tote around.
|I didn't steal them. I just looked at them longingly and vowed to return when I had more money.|
- It sounds like the chancellors of each city know the mantra for each shrine and the location of the rune. In Britain, Lord Tholden had given them to the bards at the conservatory, who had in turn entrusted the rune to a three-year-old child. I resisted the urge to just pry the thing from her stupid little hand and went through the indignity of asking her mother for permission to "borrow" it.
|Good job keeping that safe, guys. It's not like the gargoyles would kill for it or anything.|
- A series of gravestones in Britain all belong to one woman named Beth and her five husbands. If you LOOK at the ground in front of a gravestone, you automatically exhume a body, which you can then loot.
|"HUSBAND THE THIRD, WALTER, PASSED ON IN HIS SLEEP. HIS LAST THOUGHTS A SECRET THAT DEATH WILL KEEP."|
- I might be missing the mechanic, but it doesn't look like you can use items together. There's a fabric shop with a loom and a spinning wheel and a bale of wool, but I can't turn the wool into fabric. Similarly, there doesn't seem to be a way to turn flour and water into bread. This will have to wait for Ultima VII.
- Out of force of habit, I asked the horse trader about "SMITH." I didn't realize until I left that his dialogue is only funny if you realize his name is "Wilbur."
I toyed with keeping Sherry the Mouse as a permanent companion, but I ultimately declined because she's too hard for me to see against the background (it's a matter of her size combined with my colorblindness). It wouldn't work for role-playing reasons anyway. I didn't find anyone else to join me in Britain, so I'm moving on with my original three companions--all of whom refuse to leave--for now.
I'm off now to Cove, a bit east of Britain, to ask the wounded soldiers about their attempt to capture the Shrine of Compassion. After that, my journeys will take me further east to the Lycaeum, where I'll ask Mariah about the gargish book. My apologies if my posts continue to be spaced out for the next few weeks; work got very busy again.